Chris Berg – Champion of the Outer Suburban Hero

We know that Andrew Bolt is the ugly side of Australia’s commentariat, dog whistling, slavering at the riots from last week and the rest. But he also has also positioned himself as a commentator who speaks for the little man, the battler, the poor bloke pecked to death by the “media elites”. Of which Bolt, of course, is not one. It is just a pose, a positioning, a falsehood made to allow for the untrammelled advance of corporate interests. One of his more strident defenders is Chris Berg, who has a regular presence in many forums. He is very different to Bolt in many ways – especially in terms of his attitude to migrants. He is, however, similar in terms of being a user of artifice, the self positioned champion of the oppressed consumer.

Berg is often thought of as one of the “nice” members of the IPA, one of the few who isn’t after Liberal Party preselection. He is, however, a defender of the neoliberal system that provides cheap milk, no matter the cost to farmers. He now also likes the outer suburban resident. The “bogan”, in modern parlance. As ever, his words are in italics.

McMansions a sign of our country’s wealth, not a lack of taste

IS THERE any more snobbish word in the Australian vocabulary than ”McMansion”? This nasty term describes the big, new houses out in suburbs with names like Caroline Springs and Kellyville. McMansions, their nickname suggests, are the McDonald’s of housing – they’re super-sized, American and mass produced.

Interesting that he finds the addition of the “Mc” offensive and snobby, considering that he has long been a champion of multinational franchise companies like McDonalds. Surely to neoliberals, calling something “Mc” is a compliment. But that would undermine his desire to be seen as the person bashing these nebulous “elites” that use a convenient term to describe mass produced houses. And yes, they are mass produced from a template, hence the term. Maybe Berg should have suggested a better collective name for them. Curious also is the comment “suburbs with names like Kellyville”. It seems that Berg is inferring here that Kellyville is a new name, possibly named after a “Kelly”. This shows the new champion of the working class has an ignorance of history – Kellyville was a semi rural community long before it became the location of the large houses that have the current McMoniker.

Australians build the largest new houses in the world. The average size of a new freestanding home is 243 square metres. That’s 10 per cent larger than the average new American home. Naturally our big houses have critics. Sustainability advocates say McMansions are bad for the environment. Yet there’s more going on here. Because even the most high-brow academic critiques of McMansions seem to focus less on the houses and more on the people who live in them.

Terry Burke, a professor of urban studies at Swinburne University, wrote in The Conversation last year that McMansions breach the ”good principles” of environmental sustainability. Fair enough. But Burke doubled down: McMansions are very ugly, and their occupants, who also apparently own four-wheel-drives and send their children to private schools, are giving ”an ‘up yours’ message to the world”.

That sort of sneering contempt is not uncommon. The word ”McMansion” is usually deployed not to appraise a type of house, but an entire way of life. It is all about culture – the inner city world trying to understand their strange, alien suburban cousins.

One critic speaks for all, it seems. Everyone is a sneerer about the inhabitants of these houses because one makes extrapolates a conclusion about the attitudes attached to the building of large houses. Berg should know better than that – producing more than one example. This is, however, a Bolt technique. Also added to this is the comment that critics of the oversized houses are exclusively from the “inner city”. That’s because on critic speaks for all. This is convenient for the Berg thesis that any commentary on the oversized houses of the 1990s can be dismissed because it comes exclusively from inner city snobs. That Berg himself is of the inner city and a relatively recent escapee from that world, it somewhat makes his critique a touch hypocritical.

Suburban living in general is more environmentally friendly than inner-city living. A study by the Australian Conservation Foundation (no fan of consumer capitalism) concluded that, even taking into account car use, ”inner-city households outstrip the rest of Australia in every other category of consumption”.

Someone who lives in a big home can still train to work, conserve energy or water, and, if they choose, live a fashionably carbon-neutral life.

This is a fact, but a conveniently cherry picked generalised one. It doesn’t take into account a number of factors. One is the high number of rental properties in the inner city – any tenant can tell you that landlords are loathe to make any changes to their properties, especially expensive environmentally friendly upgrades. After all, it’s the tenant who pays the electricity and water usage bills, not the landlord. In addition, it is expensive to retrofit environmentally friendly solar systems and water saving devices into older properties in the inner city.

It is true that houses in the outer suburbs have enthusiastically taken up environmentally friendly moves. Some of the newer houses are so only because of government regulation (against which Berg is a constant critic), others by the enormous cost of heating and cooling the vast empty spaces of these houses. One of the crimes against the environment committed in the 1990s was open plan living, with its ducted air-conditioning. That is why when governments subsidised solar panels and provided a very generous feed in tariff, people in the outer suburbs took up the offer (Berg would have shaken his head at this move as well). These days, however, with power companies playing hard ball and not providing reasonable feed-in tariffs, power companies gain free power while the outer suburban residents lose out. A triumph of capitalism and the free market, in the Berg paradigm.

It further shows Berg’s lack of knowledge of these new suburbs when he claims that residents of suburbs can “live a fashionable carbon neutral life” by catching a train. For the vast bulk of the “McMansion” suburbs, there are no nearby train lines, few bus services (due to the presence of private bus companies) and therefore the three cars are a frequent reality of “suburbs with names like Kellyville”. I invite him to see the daily traffic queue out of Glenmore Park, south of Penrith, each day. Residents there are lucky to get out of their suburb under 15 minutes each morning, due to the lack of public transport infrastructure.

Why do we build our houses so big? Well, Australia has a lot of space. But more importantly: we can. Australia is probably the richest country in the world. We have the fastest growing income in the world. We have the highest median wealth. Our only real competition in the rich stakes comes from city-states such as Singapore and Hong Kong or oil plutocracies such as Qatar. And many Australians have decided to spend their riches on new homes.

In this logic, it’s fine to spend up, no matter the impact on the environment and the future. Just be as irresponsible as you like. Classic neo-liberal attitude towards the world.

Even if you don’t put much stock in income statistics, the size of our houses is – by itself – evidence that Australia is well off. Prosperity is about more than GDP data. Money isn’t everything. Anybody who has lived crammed into too few rooms knows living standards and adequate space are closely related. In rich Australia it’s understandable that many people desire extra living and storage space.

The issue here isn’t more living space – it’s excess living space which is eating up resources spent heating them up and cooling them down. Fortunately, the numbers of the so-called McMansion developments are reducing in the face of high energy costs and high carbon footprints. Suburbs like Oran Park in South – West Sydney have smaller blocks, thus smaller, more energy efficient houses that make less of an ongoing impact on the environment. It’s a pity, however, that instead of providing train access to the suburb, the O’Farrell Liberal Government is approving large pokie dens and CSG wells nearby.

This is where Berg’s argument about the modern houses turns a little silly. In order to indicate the place of the triumph of modern civilisation that is the 5 bedroom open plan house with home cinema, double garage and rumpus room – he uses a tenuous link to history in order to beat down his elitist opponents.

The people who best understand the relationship between housing size and living standards aren’t architectural academics or urban planners. They’re archaeologists.

Historians of the ancient world don’t have tables of wealth and income data. To estimate how rich societies were, they look at proxies. House are among the best and most accessible.

For instance, excavated homes are one way we know ancient Greece was far richer than other civilisations in the Mediterranean. According to the historian Ian Morris, between 800BC and 300BC the median Greek house size ballooned from 80 square metres to 360 square metres. And this wealth was shared among the free population, not concentrated among the ruling elite. Just as it is in 21st-century Australia. Large homes are now within the reach of moderate-income families. This is something worth celebrating, not deriding.

These moderate income family heroes are just like the Ancient Greeks – big houses are a reward, no matter the impact on the environment. He couldn’t be more patronising if he tried.

Antiquity had its share of sceptics about prosperity, too. Aristotle believed there was such a thing as too much wealth. The philosopher had determined what the ”good life” was, and he argued any excess property was unnatural.

It’s easy to imagine Aristotle tut-tutting about the big houses built by fellow Athenians. But it’s just as easy to imagine those Athenians ignoring his snobbery and enjoying the prosperity Greek society could afford.

Yes, let’s ignore Aristotle – what would he know? He should have stopped trying to dream of what a better, more satisfying balanced life would look like. He should have just grabbed a wine, ate a pig and watched some maxtreme wrestling in his private amphitheatre. No-one would remember him – but to Berg and his neoliberal cohorts, all that matters is consumption, not tomorrow.